Growth & Customers

Everything we know about… awkward conversations with clients

Our Sound Advice hosts Kate and Bex explore awkward conversations that freelancers have with their clients and how to handle them confidently.

Bex Burn-Callander and Kate Bassett

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After six months of maternity leave, we’re welcoming back the brilliant Bex Burn-Callander to the Sound Advice podcast and saying goodbye to the wonderful Kate Bassett.

In Kate’s final episode, she and Bex explore the awkward conversations that freelancers have to have with their clients and the best ways to handle them.

Covering everything from negotiating pay rises to setting firm boundaries, Kate and Bex share all their juicy tips on how to tackle these tough conversations head on.

This episode is a freelancer’s guide to navigating your way to success.

Here’s their unfiltered advice below:

The challenges of returning to work after maternity leave

Kate Bassett:

So you’ve been off for six months now, Bex.

Just getting back into the swing of things after maternity leave. What’s been the toughest thing about coming back to work?

Bex Burn-Callander:

It is tricky coming back, because I think so much of your identity is tied up with, well, for me anyway, with my career, my work.

And then you’ve put all of that on hold for however long, and then you’ve got to try and scrabble it back somehow. I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to come back gradually.

So my daughter Marina started by doing a couple of days in nursery, and then rising to three days. So I started taking on projects slowly and building my confidence back up.

But it is hard.

I mean, you don’t want to deluge yourself with loads of projects, because you don’t want to let anyone down.

You definitely don’t want anyone thinking, “She’s come back, but she’s lost her edge, or she’s not really got her mind in the game at the moment.”

So you want to make sure that all the work you do when you come back from maternity leave is still exceptional.

But at the same time, I’m breastfeeding my daughter.

So when she’s at nursery, I have to do pumping and interrupt my flow If I’m writing a feature or recording a podcast and go off and get the dreaded machine out.

Kate Bassett:

That’s an awkward conversation in itself, isn’t it?

Have you been midway through a meeting and said, “Excuse me, I’ve got to go and pump.”

Bex Burn-Callander:

I have. I’m just zero filter.

I don’t know whether it’s kind of post-pregnancy hormones, but I’ll be like, “Really sorry, my boobs hurt. Got to go.” And then that’ll be the end of the online meeting.

People have been really nice about it, though.

Kate Bassett:

And have you found it hard to pick up work again since you’ve been back?

Or have you got the opposite problem where you’re being inundated with emails and work?

Bex Burn-Callander:

I think this is the interesting thing about having kids later in life.

So I’m going to be 40, so I’ve had all this time to establish my career. Some of the clients that I’ve had have been with me for years, so it was quite easy when I stepped away to tell them I’ll be back on this date.

And some of these clients were just ready to step back in as soon as I was back at my laptop. And that’s been great, and I just had two or three that were primed, ready to go.

But I haven’t been brave enough to do the full mail out yet and let my whole portfolio of clients know that I’m back, because I’m just terrified that there will suddenly being way too much work.

And then I’ll have to have lots of awkward conversation and be like, “I’m really sorry. I told everybody I was available, but actually I’ve already said yes to this, this and this, and I can’t do anything for you now.”

So I’m just waiting to do that basically.

Kate Bassett:

Yeah. Well the secret is out now. The minute this podcast episode comes out, you’re going to have a deluge of emails and work.

Bex Burn-Callander:

They’ll be like, “What? You didn’t tell us? Rude.”

Never fully commit to a project until you’re confident you can do the work

Kate Bassett:

So I did want to bring up that point actually around saying no to work.

What’s the best way to do it? How do you do it without burning any professional bridges?

Bex Burn-Callander:

If you want me to bring the realness, I will often say just lie.

If you do not want to do a project, the best way to let someone down is just to say, “I’m really sorry, this sounds fabulous. I’d be really keen to do it, but I’m just too busy.”

And I think sometimes, that is just the way to manage everyone’s emotions, yours, and the clients.

I know that you’re not supposed to lie. I know we’re all supposed to bring our best selves to work and be brutally honest, but I find sometimes, that’s just the best way to avoid having an awkward conversation in the first place.

Are you more honest than me? Do you tell people exactly why you’re turning them down?

Kate Bassett:

No. So if it’s something I really don’t want to do, and I know I don’t want to do it because of that feeling in my stomach, I’ve just definitely learned to trust that a bit more.

If I just think, not keen, I will turn it down even if it’s lucrative, I will go with the, “I’m too busy,” or I will say, “I don’t think I’m the best fit for this.”

So I will be honest, and I will try and then put them in touch with another freelancer who would be better and is available. I think if you can present them with another solution, that kind of keeps you in their good books.

If it is a case of I’m just too booked up and busy, I will try and tell them when I’m available.

So I might say, “I’m really booked up at the moment, but available from September. So please let me know if anything else comes up.”

Just because I don’t want them to not think about me the next time a project comes up.

Bex Burn-Callander:

That’s so funny, that sinking feeling that you described. Because I know it inside out, just when you read the brief, and literally your stomach just drops away, and you think, “This is just going to be a nightmare.”

And if you don’t listen to that feeling, and I did that just before I went on to maternity leave, a big regular client came to me and said, “We’ve got this white paper, and Oxford University have put it together, and it’s about this really gnarly issue in financial services. We want you to write the executive summary.”

And I looked at it, and I was like, “I don’t really know that much about this particular quirk of financial services.”

I had that sinking feeling, and something was telling me, “Don’t do it. Don’t do it” But it was good money.

So I said, “Let me have a look.”

And then they sent me the report, and it was just illegible. I didn’t understand how they’d come up with these numbers, the data matrix was just a complete spaghetti junction.

I had to pull out at that point and be like, “I’ve read the report. I think the report’s really awful and there’s no way I can make an executive summary out of it.”

I didn’t say it as brutally as that, but that was my punishment for not just listening to my gut.

Kate Bassett:

But it was good that you hadn’t actually agreed. You just said, “Send me a copy of the report, so I can have a look and work out whether I’m the right fit for this.”

So I think that was a really good move, that you didn’t agree to it until you had got the full brief and what you were getting yourself into.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Yeah, never completely commit until you’re confident you can do the work and do it to the best of your ability.

Otherwise, yes, awkward conversations will follow.

Don’t let your ego stand in the way of amazing opportunities

Kate Bassett:

So what happens where you have committed, you’ve signed the dotted line, you are halfway through a project, and then the client asks you to do something as part of that project that you are not comfortable with?

What do you do?

Bex Burn-Callander:

Yeah, I was thinking about this, because there’s been a few instances where I’ve suddenly been like, “I don’t really enjoy this anymore.”

And I’ve realised that it happens either because, I’ll be frank, of my own ego. Or it’ll happen because there’s something ethically dubious about what I’ve been asked to do.

And what I’ve learned is that when it’s to do with ego, I’ll give you an example.

One of my tech clients I do some ghostwriting for, I used to write all these really great entrepreneur posts for him, tips, and tricks on how to grow your business faster.

And I loved that stuff, and I loved that it went out into the world, and it got loads of likes and loads of comments. And you kind of bask. No one knew it was me writing it, but you bask in the reflected glow of this post doing well.

Then he got a new marketing director, and the marketing director was like, “This is an unnecessary expense. You need to be putting loads of detail about the platform, about the features and about customer testimonials into this.”

And I started to have to write what was basically marketing fluff.

And I hated it, and I felt like it’d gone so far from the original brief, and I wanted to quit because I was like, “I’m not a marketing person.”

And when I was reading back what I’d written, I didn’t feel any pride in my work.

I had to just have a word with myself and be like, “Don’t get too big for your boots. This is a great client. He’s asked you to do this job. Do the job to the best of your ability. At least you can try and make it a bit more entrepreneur focused because that’s what you care about.”

And low and behold, after a month or so, that marketing director got the sack, and then we went back to writing the original post. And if I had pulled out, then I would’ve lost a really great client and soured a relationship, and then ultimately lost that revenue stream.

So that was the right way to go.

But then on the other side, I had a client who wanted me to change quotes, wanted me to change direct quotes so that they were more favourable about their product.

And at that point I was like, “That’s not my ego, that is kind of an ethical issue.” And then I had to pull out, and I had to say no.

I think it’s important to know, is it ethics or is it ego, and make the right call.

What about you?

Kate Bassett:

I’ve had similar situations on both fronts actually, where it’s around ego, and I don’t feel proud of what I’m writing. But that’s become the brief and I have to stick to it.

I will sometimes just say, “Look, I’m really happy to do this, but can we not include my name against the piece?”

And people are normally happy with that. So I would consider it more like copywriting.

In other situations, I’ve been asked to interview people. And when I’ve researched them, I’ve realised that they have a really bad reputation in the industry, or there’s been some poor reviews about the company, or there’s been some legal action against them, and I’m just not comfortable.

And usually, I will flag that immediately with the client and say, “I don’t think it’s good for me to interview them and I don’t think it’s going to be a good look for you.”

Normally clients will immediately pull that interview because they don’t want to be tarnished with that.

So I think again, it’s just about being really honest. The minute there’s a red flag, you should raise it, and not be afraid to do so.

I think it’s also awkward where a lot of this is in emails, and sometimes the tone of your email or the tone of a client’s email can be very different to the way that you would speak to somebody.

So I would always advise trying to put things in writing, but also jumping on a Zoom call with someone is so easy now. We’ve got Zoom, and Teams, and Google Meet, and everything.

It’s so much easier to do that, whereas before you’d want to try and meet a client for a coffee to have those face-to-face conversations.

Now I’d say put everything in writing in an email, but do try and have a face to face as well, because the tone is going to be very different.

Bex Burn-Callander:

It’s amazing how you can diffuse an awkward conversation with a smile just by showing that you are being positive in your approach to the theme or the topic or the challenge, and you’re just presenting yourself as willing to negotiate.

You are just presenting your view, but you’re smiling. There’s no ruffled feathers, no bad feelings. It makes such a difference. I think that’s a really good bit of advice.

Kate Bassett:

Yeah, I think the more conversations you have that feel slightly awkward, the better you are as a freelancer or as a leader.

Actually, there’s a really good quote from Tim Ferriss who’s the American entrepreneur and author, and he said, “A person’s success in life can be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.”

I think that word willing is really important because you have to put yourself out there and think, “I’m going to be honest.”

And actually you could reframe uncomfortable and awkward as just honest.

How to approach awkward conversations with your partner about your freelancing lifestyle

Kate Bassett:

Actually, I wanted to talk to you as well because it’s not just conversations with clients. It’s also awkward conversations with your partner that you have to have, which is a slightly different angle.

But I think as a freelancer, it’s often you and your job that means you can’t necessarily get that mortgage, or you can’t necessarily plan for the summer holidays because you don’t know how much income is going to be coming in.

How do you have those kinds of awkward conversations or financial conversations with your partner?

Bex Burn-Callander:

I think it would be so much harder if my husband was also a freelancer. But because he works, not exactly 9am to 5pm, but he’s got his working week, his set hours, it means that I can have some flexibility, because we’re not at war for that time when he’s booked off.

But actually, “Look, there’s got to be a last-minute call.” It doesn’t work like that for him.

And I think because I met my husband when I was already freelancing, he’s never known a different version of me. He’s never known a version of me that isn’t semi switched on, checking my emails, having to field last-minute requests from clients.

So I think it’s never been a real issue.

When it came to our mortgage application, that’s a funny one because it was tricky. I think in the end, I had to work my socks off, and have an amazing year as a sole trader.

I literally had to double my revenue in a year. And then do my accounts, get my lovely accountant to do my accounts right after the year the financial year had ended.

So it was like at the end of January he started doing it, so that I could quickly get an extra year’s earnings on to my mortgage application. So I think in that case, I was able to present a solution. So that was sort of alright.

I think I’ve just been really lucky though because I was so established as a freelancer by that point, that a lot of those awkward moments had passed.

I think if you are just starting out, then you’ve got three years of potentially some of those sticking points to deal with before you are home free.

What about you?

Because you’ve been travelling all over the world recently and leaving your lovely husband James to hold the fort while you’ve been in Dubai and New York.

Tell us about how you managed to swing that?

Kate Bassett:

So that’s a very honest and frank conversation you have to have. So recently I’ve had some really amazing jobs in Saudi Arabia, India, and America, which has taken me off and away from the family.

But those kinds of ad hoc, lucrative projects, are really exciting, to be able to travel as well, means that we have to have a conversation where we are prioritising my job in that instance.

And he then finds a way to work his job so that he can be there for the school pickups and look after the kids for four days or five days or however long away for.

I just think it actually does really help when you’ve got a super supportive partner no matter what role you are in, and especially when you have a family thrown into the mix as well.

But I do think it’s hard.

I do think it’s hard working out who does what at home and at work. I think those are always awkward conversations.

Bex Burn-Callander:

I think that whether it’s your client, or your partner, or freelancers that you might work with, I think the trick is always the give and the take.

So to make sure that you look out for one another. And if someone gets a really amazing opportunity, you don’t stand in their way.

But similarly, you try and make yourself available for when they get the amazing opportunity.

And you just have to try and make sure there’s ebb and flow back and forth between you, which is just the essence of making any sort of cooperation work.

The best way to negotiate a pay rise

Kate Bassett:

Yeah, 100%.

And earlier, you touched on negotiations, so I did want to ask you about the best way to negotiate a pay rise from your client.

How do you deal with that?

Bex Burn-Callander:

I wish I was better at it, and I think that it’s something I would like to work on as a freelancer.

I’m pretty good at saying, “Look, my experience level is here. The world has changed. I have proven myself in this way and that way. We’ve seen this success as evidenced by metric A, metric B. Therefore, I would like a little bit more money.”

You have to be really evidence-based when you ask for more money. You can’t just be like, “I’d like an extra £50,” or, “I’d like to put up my prices.”

I think you have to say, “Look, this is what I’ve done for you. This is how successful you’ve been because of our partnership, and I would like that reflected in my remuneration.”

But it is hard to do that.

I mean, some people say they put their prices up every year. I mean that sounds amazing.

I’d be making a fortune if I put them up every year. But I do it once every three years, which is not awful, but not great.

And it’s only an awkward conversation if you can feel that the client is either struggling financially or doesn’t see the true value in what you do.

And so I think before you even start having a money conversation, it’s just really important to choose the clients and the projects where you know that the client sees you as an amazing asset and sees the work that you do as being a credit to their organisation or for their personal brand, because that is the bedrock that makes that conversation possible.

How about you?

What do you do when you want a little bit more moolah?

Kate Bassett:

Well I agree. I think first of all, I do think clients are expecting it in this climate.

I mean, I know a lot of service people that we use have put their prices up, and I expect it and agree with it, because we’ve got a cost of living crisis going on. Inflation is sky-high.

But I don’t think when you are telling clients you are putting your prices up, it’s enough just to blame inflation. I think you’re right. You have to talk about the whole experience that you are offering them.

And actually, we did an episode with James Ashford, who’s the founder of GoProposal, and he had a really good quote around having those conversations around prices.

He said, “You can’t just talk about price without talking about the whole experience. People remember how you made them feel long after they’ve forgotten what you’ve done for them. You have to have a method of presenting everything that you believe that person needs.”

Which I think is really interesting. And it’s what you were saying as well, you have to talk about what else you are bringing other than just the work.

So you are bringing your experience, you are bringing your contacts book. I often find as part of a project, I will link my client to other people or give them great entrepreneurs to interview. And that’s actually really invaluable to give them those connections.

So I think it’s really presenting yourself in that way and showing them what they’re going to be missing out on if they don’t pay you that premium.

I think it’s also really important to talk to other freelancers who have worked with that client just to get a sense of, are they good payers? Do they pay on time? What’s the going rate?

I do a lot of work for the Financial Times, and I think they’re really good in that they have set fees for whatever you are doing.

So if you are working for the FT Live on organising a half day event, there are set fees in place so whoever’s working on that project will get paid exactly the same.

And I often use those rates and show them to other clients and say, “Well this is what the FT pays, so let’s do it in line with that.” And I think that’s really helpful to have a list of fees.

Because actually sometimes, if you’re taking out that process of negotiation, it’s much easier on everybody.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Yeah. And you are completely right. When you are taking on a freelance project, you don’t know if that project happened before, how much that freelancer got paid.

And it’s so helpful if you have a network, and you can say, “Have you worked for a similar organisation before? Have you done a similar kind of project or scope of work, and what did you charge?”

Because otherwise, it’s awful. It’s so awful when you realise that you’ve charged half of what you could have done for a project, and you find out way down the line that so and so was getting double.

It’s a kick in the teeth because it’s your own fault. You’ve underpriced yourself.

They said, “What did you charge?” You told them the number, and it was wrong.

So yeah, doing your research upfront so that you make sure you get what’s fair, that’s vital as well, I think.

How to deal with negative feedback

Kate Bassett:

Yeah, definitely. And with awkward conversations. What about at the end of a project?

So you’ve negotiated great fee, you’ve done some, what you thought was great work.

But then the client’s come back and said they’re not happy, or they want to make a lot of changes to your copy, or for whatever reason, you haven’t lived up to their expectations.

How do you deal with negative feedback?

Bex Burn-Callander:

I’ve basically borrowed my approach from retail, which is the customer is always right.

So if someone’s not happy with my work, even if I think I’ve done it to the best of my ability, I will apologise. I will say, “I’ll do whatever it takes to fix it. Just tell me how I can improve. I really want you to be happy.”

And again, I know I talked about ego earlier. But sometimes, you just have to swallow your pride and just put your hands up, especially if you have made a mistake.

Absolutely, if you have made a mistake and say, “This is entirely on me. I am really sorry that this mistake slipped through. I’m going to fix it now, and let me know if there’s anything else I can do to try and mitigate the consequences of this mistake.”

And actually, the way that you respond to someone telling you, you’ve made a mistake, if you make it a positive interaction, you’re humble, you’re apologetic, that’s what the client remembers. They don’t remember the mistake later on.

They just remember how easy you made it to fix it, how approachable you were. If you are like, “That wasn’t me,” or, “I was in a rush” or “You put pressure on me” and “You moved the deadline, or you change the brief”, and you make any excuses like that, that’s what they remember.

They remember how unpleasant that particular confrontation was.

So hopefully it doesn’t happen very often, but I think any mistake you make is an opportunity to be really brilliant about fixing it, and ultimately come out of it with a stronger relationship as a result.

How about you? What do you do when you’ve made a mistake? Have you made any big mistakes that you can remember?

Kate Bassett:

I mean, definitely not Bex, because I’m flawless.

I mean I wouldn’t say touch wood, I’ve made any huge howlers. But there have been instances where if you’re writing a piece for the FT, they’re going to come back with edits, or they’re going to say, “Actually, can you get a few more quotes out of this person?”

And I think when you are producing copy particularly, you can feel quite precious about the words that you’ve written and the research that you’ve put into it.

But I will always completely agree with their professional opinion and do what they’ve asked me to do, because I would say that’s also built into the fee, that if they want to make some changes, or they need some extra quotes or research, then I will definitely do that.

And usually, it’s ended up that the piece is better because of those edits, and they’re really thrilled.

Actually, the last two pieces I’ve written for the FT have been on the front page of the supplement that I’ve written for. So everyone’s ended up being really being happy with that.

But yeah, it can be hard to deal with any kinds of negative feedback, particularly where you don’t agree with what they’re saying.

So I have had instances where they’ve wanted to change some of the sentences, and it either hasn’t quite made sense, or it’s actually just made it quite boring. Because you want people to be really engaged with your article immediately.

And if they’re trying to change the intro and make it more salesy for whatever reason, depending on what client you’re working for, it just takes all the juju out of your piece.

But again, sometimes you just have to say, well that’s what they’ve paid for. If that’s what they’re going to be happy with, I’m going to let it go down to the ego again.

Bex Burn-Callander:

But that’s it. And so in the newspaper world, we talk about it as killing your darlings.

So often when you are writing a news piece, and you’ve got particular flourish or a turn of phrase, it’s a thing that you like the best about the thing that you’ve written. And that will invariably be the thing that the editor takes out, and you feel so emotionally invested in that thing.

And I did it recently. I wrote a piece for a big wealth manager, and it was all about how the super-rich engage their family in conversations about wealth planning.

“Do you tell your kids how much each of them are getting?”

And I started the piece with a quote from Notorious B.I.G. like “Mo Money Mo Problems”. I was like, “This is genius. This is genius.”

I don’t know whether it made it through the sign-off presence, but I could see that was my darling on the page in the intro, and I was just telling myself, “Be prepared for that to be the first thing that gets cut, and be chill about it. Be gracious when it goes.”

Setting boundaries and expectations with your clients

Kate Bassett:

And have you had clients where their expectations are sky-high, and there’s no sense of boundaries?

So they’re emailing you in the middle of the night, or texting you at weekends, or setting impossible deadlines. How do you deal with those kinds of clients?

Bex Burn-Callander:

It’s interesting, isn’t it? Because I can think of two instances in recent history where that’s been the case. And one client who does sometimes call me at 7:00pm and says, “I need you to do something urgently for me, and I need to be able to put it out tomorrow morning.”

But I love him.

He is such a nice man, and he is the kind of person that will say, “It’s 7:00pm, I know you’re in the middle of bedtime with your kids. I need this done. I will pay you double.”

And so the ebb and flow is there, and I will always bend over backwards to do something for him.

But then there was another potential client, no longer a client, who wanted me to write a book for them, and they were just constantly sending me ideas, and asking me to redraft things.

I mean, we hadn’t even got as far as, we’d had some ideas about how the chapters would go, and I’d started writing a sample Chapter One.

And it was just constant and a frenzy of communication. And it was exhausting, and it was getting in the way of me actually writing the thing.

In the end, I had to pull out of the whole project.

And I had to say to the guy, “I think honestly, you don’t want me to write it. I think you want to write it, which is why you keep criticising everything that I am putting together. I think ultimately this is your baby.

You want to be the one that puts pen to paper, and you want to feel like you’re in control of the whole project. And that’s why I think maybe you are blocking me from getting anywhere with it.”

And he said, “You know what? You’re completely right, and that is how it is. And maybe I should go away and try and write it by myself. Then at least if I don’t succeed, I can come back to you in a year or so, and then I’ll know that there’s no way I’m going to do it on my own.

“And then we can start again.”

I mean, I won’t go back to the project, but at least we parted as friends.

Try to have difficult conversations face to face rather than over an email

Kate Bassett:

And did you say that in an email, or did you say that face-to-face?

Bex Burn-Callander:

No, I wasn’t able to do it face-to-face, but I did it over the phone.

And I picked up the phone and I said, “Mr. So-and-so, it’s really great to catch you on the phone. I just wanted to clear the air a little on this project. I’ve been seeing that you’ve made a lot of edits,” and there’s some very specific things that he wanted.

So he loved, do you know the oat milk brand Oatly? Have you heard of it or seen it on shelves?

Kate Bassett:

Yes, I’m a fan.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Yeah, okay. Well, do you know the tone, in every cup of coffee?

Well, the tone of voice they use on the packaging, I think it’s a bit Marmite-y. I hate it.

There are people who love it, but it’s like on one side, it’s got, “This is the boring side. Please do not read if you don’t want to hear about our fabulous”… I find the whole tone really patronising.

Anyway, he came back to me and said that he wanted the whole first chapter of this project rewritten in the Oatly tone. And at that point I was like, “Come on.”

So on this call I said, “This and this and this that you’ve asked for. It’s getting to the point where it’s just unmanageable, and I cannot do the job that you are asking of me. But I do think that maybe you would love to have a crack at it.”

And I tried to be charming, tried to be persuasive in the way that I said, “It could be really hard to hand over your baby. This is your idea, and then you’re trusting a complete stranger to try and bring your idea to life.

“I get that it’s a hard process. Are you sure you don’t want to have some time to put pen to paper? I’m not going to make you pay my fee.

“I’m happy to give you the space and time to do this.”

I think he was just so relieved that the elephant in the room was now visible to all, but it had to be over the phone.

Because if I tried to in an email, he would’ve probably got really cross, thought that I was just trying to start an argument.

So yeah, it had to be done with charm and diplomacy.

Kate Bassett:

And you can soften a conversation and put on that charm over the phone or via video. In those face-to-face conversations, I do think it’s much easier.

But yeah, I’ve had instances where the client is also getting in the way of me doing the project.

So I’ve had clients that want to have meetings sort of three times a week, and those are really time-consuming. They’re often not built into the fee that I’m charging because that wasn’t agreed.

Particularly where I’ve been doing some work in America, I’m then having to do it on US time as well. So that’s been hard.

And I’ve had to say, “I’m happy to do these phone calls. Here are the times that I’m available, and can we agree how many we’re going to do a week? And then I can build that into the fee project going forward.” So I’ve had to sort of call it out.

A lot of the time, it’s often the client’s client who are behaving in that way. So if you tell your contact, “Actually I’m struggling, this isn’t what was agreed.” Hopefully they will be on your side and have your back.

So again, I think it’s just about setting those boundaries of what you can and can’t do. And making sure if that does change, it’s built into the fee structure.

Bex Burn-Callander:

And remembering that these people were hard to work with when it comes to the next time, they approach you with work.

I mean, one of the joys of being a freelancer is that you might have to suck it up when you have a slightly tricky client, but you never have to work with them again.

You can see their name pop up in your emails and be like, “Sorry, I’m too busy.”

Top tips for successful confrontation

Kate Bassett:

So what would you say Bex then, are your overall sort of rules for a successful confrontation?

Bex Burn-Callander:

I think the first thing is to avoid them all together by vetting your clients carefully, by being very clear about what is the parameters of the project, your fee, how far you’re willing to go, whether you’ve got any wiggle room in terms of, do you have two projects overlapping?

Can something take a bit longer or not? So that’s step one is to just try and mitigate any of those problems before they arise.

The second thing is to try as much as you are able to do business with people that you like, because it’s so much easier to have those confrontations if there’s mutual respect, and you actually really want to reach a solution that works for both parties.

So that really helps.

The third thing I would say is don’t run away from awkward conversations. Don’t hide. Don’t ghost someone just because you don’t want to have that conversation.

Face up to the problem, and you’ll often find that your anticipation of the conversation is so much worse than the actual conversation itself.

You’ll build up in your mind, you’ll be so worried it’ll be a nightmare.

And then nine times out of 10, you’ll just explain the issue, and they’ll be like, “I didn’t realise I was doing that. Of course this would be what you would think,” or whatever.

And it’s just resolved.

So I’d say those are my top three. Your top three?

Kate Bassett:

I would say always go for the sandwich email, which is nice comment, negative comment, nice comment. So sandwich it.

Bex Burn-Callander:


Kate Bassett:

Yeah. I heard that from, I think it was an HR director who obviously has to have a lot of awkward conversations via email with staff that they’re firing, etc.

So yeah, always try and bookend what you are saying with nice comments. Always be kind. Kindness is underrated. People will remember you for that.

I would also say try not to let your emotions get in the way of a confrontation.

So if you are really angry or really upset about something, don’t send the email at that point. Sleep on it. Everything’s always going to feel better in the morning.

Bex Burn-Callander:

That’s a really good point. Although I would say sometimes, it’s a joy to just burn that bridge.

Sometimes, when you’ve spent all week being really nice, and just being the rational party, I had an instance recently where a client that I hated working with and stopped working with then came back and asked me for something really unreasonable, and I just let them have it.

And I have to say it felt fabulous.

And sometimes when I’m feeling a bit low, I go back and read that email exchange, and I just laugh about how good it felt to say, “No, not doing it. You were a nightmare. Not working with you again,” and just burnt that bridge to the ground, never going back.

So occasionally just let the rough out.

Kate Bassett:

Yeah. So to sum up, if you’ve got a really hideous client, get the match out, light it, burn that bridge.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Burn that bridge to the ground.

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